Supporting Public Education

In his Banner article last August, James K.A. Smith made a cogent case for Christian schooling (“The Case for Christian Education”). Joining an esteemed list of apologists with names like Beversluis, Oppewal, and Wolterstorff, he made attractive once again a Reformed vision for Christian day schools.

Christian schools are not supported uniformly by all Reformed denominations, however, which implies that Christian schooling is a fitting but not a necessary or sufficient indicator of Reformed orthodoxy. At least some members of the Reformed community recognize that their Reformed identity can be expressed and nurtured in a variety of educational contexts.

The very existence of private schools has consequences for public schools.

In fact, Reformed thinking prompts active involvement by Christians in the world of public schools. Abraham Kuyper’s “every square inch” surely includes the sphere of public education. Christian teachers and administrators are called to leadership roles in public schools. Christian parents, too, can be called to public education by enrolling their children, participating in parent-teacher organizations, and serving on school boards. Public education provides powerful possibilities for engaging the needs of God’s world and for making the gospel luminous.

As citizens, Christians have a stake in the welfare of our nations, and that welfare, as Thomas Jefferson noted long ago, is dependent on an educated populace. That’s why Christian voters consistently support public school millages as well as financially support an alternative school system. Though Christian school supporters lobby for more equitable sharing of public funds, most recognize the public good provided by tax-supported schools. Such civic-minded behavior is fitting for children of the King who “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” (Mark 12:17).

Canada and the United States are pluralistic societies that prize religious liberty. Yet how will we live with our deepest differences? Classrooms, both public and private, are places to model and teach how to do this, protecting all people despite our competing views about truth. Our Christian faith demands that all children be treated justly by the government and by schools.

Unintended Consequences

The very existence of private schools has consequences for public schools—consequences that are never intended by Christian school supporters but are nonetheless real. One is diminution in the overall quality of schools when some children are removed from the mix.

Children whose parents are able to afford private school tuition typically bring to school with them all the benefits and privileges of their more prosperous lives. They have travelled, gone to museums and plays, and been exposed to books. Studies show that middle-class children have tens of thousands more words in their vocabularies than impoverished children. When such students enroll in nonpublic schools, the opportunity to share their experience and knowledge with peers of differing backgrounds is lost.

A parallel cost for so-called “privileged” children is the loss of opportunity to learn from children whose life experiences differ from their own. Children who appear to have less can teach many things, such as coping skills, resilience, the fact that happiness is not found in the abundance of possessions, and the truth that beauty can be found and love given and received in many ways and places.

Another unintended wound to public education is reduction in the number of powerful advocates for school improvement. Any parent close to schools knows the value of alertness and advocacy. When too few involved parents are on the scene, the potential for injurious things to happen increases. Intolerable conditions persist because they remain unseen or because the people who see do not know how to change them—or because injustices that affect someone else are easier to ignore. The energy required to sustain Christian schools diverts the attention of many capable and savvy members of a community away from the public school system.

Illuminating and combating social injustice requires that we honestly and fully acknowledge how the practice of Christian schooling can operate to stigmatize, segregate, and disadvantage some children. We must face the reality that separate schools can contribute to the cultural and political devaluation especially of students who are poor or of ethnic minorities.

Public Education as Calling

Clearly, some Christians are called to teach in public schools. Close to half the teachers who graduate from the Christian college where I teach obtain employment as Christ-centered, transformational teachers in public schools. Many specifically seek employment in public education because they sense the world’s great need in that arena. They see schools that are insufficiently funded, poorly resourced, and inadequately staffed. As lovers of justice, they are offended by the inequities experienced by students in public schools, especially in urban areas. Addressing such issues becomes their ministry. For similar reasons, many congregations partner with their neighborhood public schools to provide tutoring, materials, encouragement, and prayer as part of their servant work.

Public school teachers are in a position to love and guide children and adolescents who may not receive what they need at home or in their neighborhoods (though we must not be quick to assume the worst of students’ home lives). As one teacher said to Gloria and Julia Stronks, “There is a gap between those who have the background to follow their dreams and those who hardly dare dream” (see Christian Teachers in Public Schools: A Guide for Teachers, Administrators, and Parents, Baker Books, 1999). While many children live in homes filled with love, no matter their economic background, too many in North America live in unsafe places in which it is a wonder that they survive. Thank God some teachers are called to spend themselves in the company of such students.

Parents sometimes feel compelled to send their children to public schools for reasons that are inherently Reformed. For example, some families are committed to live in city neighborhoods. They incarnate Jesus in their community advocacy and enroll their children in neighborhood public schools as a way of living out their Reformed witness in the world and as a means to teach their children how to be salt and light.

Much more can be said on this subject. Readers interested in developing their thinking about how Christians can live their faith in nonsectarian schools are encouraged to read the excellent book by Stronks and Stronks referenced above.

Public education is certainly holy ground that summons the investment of Reformed Christians.

For Discussion

  1. Why does the Christian Reformed Church, along with other Reformed churches, promote the cause of Christian day schools?
  2. Why would other Reformed Christians opt for public schools?
  3. What in Reformed thinking would prompt our active involvement in the world of public schools as well as private schools?
  4. What consequences might the establishment of Christian schools have to the public schools in their area?
  5. Are Christians who teach in public schools “copping out”? Should we support those Christian teachers? If so, how?
  6. Is public education "holy ground"? Explain.

About the Author

Dr. Thomas B. Hoeksema just retired after 36 years as professor of education at Calvin College, Grand Rapids, Mich., where his passion has been in building inclusive communities for diverse learners.
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